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Nutritional Yeast: Better Than Cheese?

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: Make your Parmesan jealous. Nutritional yeast is pure magic -- vegan, cheesy, and utterly habit-forming.

Nutritional yeast: The name sounds healthy and vaguely scientific and prior to becoming a convert myself, I chalked it up to being an obscure, health food store staple. Vegan friends would gush over its cheese-like taste, which I always suspected was like promising someone that carob brownies will taste deeply of fudge (carob may be a lot of things, but chocolate it is not).

But then -- purely by accident -- I tried it. Hangry one afternoon, I ducked into a cramped natural foods store in Greenwich Village and snatched the first snack I saw that looked familiar: popcorn. Their homemade version was popped in coconut oil and showered in a blend of nutritional yeast, paprika, turmeric, and tamari. The first bite tasted bizarrely similar to Spicy Nacho Doritos (I do mean that as a compliment), and after downing the entire bag, I vowed to recreate it.

Since then, I’ve not only mastered the perfect "cheese" popcorn, but I've tried nutritional yeast in creamy pasta sauces, on kale chips, on real chips, in soups, and even in biscuits. 

So what is it exactly?
Nutritional yeast (often called "nooch") is an inactive yeast grown on sugar cane and beet molasses, then dried and sold in flake or powder form. It's gluten-free, and unlike regular yeast, it won’t bubble or grow or help leaven breads. An excellent source of vitamin B12, it has a savory, nutty, cheesy flavor. Use it in recipes calling for cheese -- it tastes similar to Parmesan and melts beautifully into sauces. You can find it in most health food stores in the bulk section, and increasingly in regular grocery stores in the natural foods section in jars. Be sure not to confuse it with brewer's yeast, which is an entirely different ingredient.

Try it yourself:
Nutritional yeast is beloved by vegans as a cheese substitute, but you don’t need to be avoiding dairy to fall in love with it. I eat cheese with reckless abandon (I am an equal opportunity romancer of everything from cheddar to Camembert), and I have welcomed nutritional yeast into my pantry with open arms.

Popcorn is the simplest and most subtle vehicle for enjoying nutritional yeast. Think of it as the gateway drug to the intense stuff: One day you’re casually sprinkling a touch of nutritional yeast over buttery popcorn kernels, and the next thing you know you’re slathering vegan nutritional yeast pesto on your pasta. Here are my favorite ways to use it:

No-Cheese Cheese Popcorn

Vegan Pesto

Creamy Spring Pasta

Breakfast Scramble

Asparagus Risotto

Have you tried nutritional yeast? Tell us your favorite way to use it!

First and third photos by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom.